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Nocturnal Animals Review: A Devastating Work from Tom Ford

By  · Published on September 13th, 2016

Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is Devastating

The sophomore feature from fashion designer Tom Ford is devastating and among the best of the festival.

When a first time director is lauded for their debut film, the praise rarely carries over to their sophomore feature. Haute couture designer Tom Ford shocked audiences with his first feature A Single Man in 2009. The film was not only elegant and restrained, but also provided lead actor Colin Firth with a vehicle for his strongest performance to date. After returning to fashion for seven years, Ford reemerges with his latest, Nocturnal Animals, an ambitious and shocking experimentation in genre.

Amy Adams stars as Susan Morrow, a solemn art gallerist estranged from both her work and her stoic husband Hutton (Armie Hammer). As her husband leaves for a business trip, Susan is presented with a package. She opens the delivery to reveal the manuscript of a novel, titled “Nocturnal Animals” written and sent by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) who she has not seen in almost twenty years. As Susan reads, the film enters the world of the novel – or at least how Susan imagines it. Tony (Also Gyllenhaal) is driving across a West Texas highway late at night with his wife (Adams lookalike Isla Fisher) and teenaged daughter (Ellie Bamber). After being run off the road by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his maniacal followers, the three are mercilessly harassed and then kidnapped. Tony is separated from his family, and after escaping seeks the help of detective Bobby Andes (Played by the brilliant Michael Shannon) to take revenge on those that destroyed his family.

The film interweaves between two vastly different plots, both presented in overbearingly different styles. The style in which Ford depicts Susan’s life is one of sheen and sensuality. Each color is completely saturated, with each costume beautifully designed. The manner in which Susan’s narrative plays out is intoxicating and dreamlike, not far off from the style of A Single Man. It is the formal and story elements of Ford’s second narrative that is truly shocking. The story of Edward Sheffield is absolutely terrifying. The sequences of Edward’s first interactions with Ray and his crew (including a surprisingly strong Karl Glusman) provide some of the most nail-biting cinema in recent memory. Dispensing with the gloss and glamour of Susan’s narrative, the novel Nocturnal Animals is presented as a southern-fried nightmare. The clean-shaven Gyllenhaal who appears as Edward is part one is clean-shaven and neatly dressed. In complete contrast, Gyllenhaal’s Tony is a mess. His hair is unkempt, his beard overgrown; he is constantly gleaming with sweat and his eyes carry an impenetrable desperation. Tony’s attempt to process his family’s deconstruction begins to mirror the separation of Susan and Edward’s relationship, eventually making way for an ending that is shocking, devastating, yet completely necessary.

In the role of the villain, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is spellbinding. Clearly borrowing from Dennis Hopper’s performance as Frank Booth in Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Taylor-Johnson nevertheless crafts one of the year’s most frightening villains. His best work comes when pitted against Gyllenhaal, whose devastation expertly contrasts with Taylor-Johnson’s sense of devilish control. Adams, on the other hand, is tasked with the most difficult performance of them all. While she is largely inactive, seen sitting in meetings or reading silently in her home, the actress is tasked with building her character through Ford’s numerous close-ups of her face. Using the most particular expressions, Adams is able to put forth Susan as a multi-dimensional character, which is what allows the film’s reveals and devastating finale to function so perfectly.

Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is cinema at its most vibrant. The film may be beautiful – and beautifully ugly – to gaze at, but the second-time director yields the control and understanding of the medium required for the emotional spine of the film. It is shocking that someone making their second film has such a grasp of genre, and a distinct comprehension of film form to allows these contracting narratives to inhabit one screen. Nocturnal Animals is an always thrilling, sporadically devastating piece of cinema, which currently holds my stamp of approval as the best of the fest.

Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films.